Political Animal


January 23, 2013 4:35 PM Moses or Joshua?

By Ed Kilgore

As Barack Obama begins his second term, progressives are spending a significant amount of time trying to figure out reasonable expectations for him given political and fiscal realities. More than a few probably figure just defending his first-term legacy against Republican assaults would be enough. Michael Lind proposes the very big projects of radical criminal justice reform and a national system of government-supported child care, and hopes progressives can somehow forge temporary coalitions with “libertarians, populists and enlightened conservatives” to break the gridlock. Jonathan Chait suggests Obama could take action on the climate change front via regulation, and perhaps bludgeon politically threatened Republicans into cooperating with something like comprehensive immigration reform.

If anybody in either party expects significant progress on the fiscal front—or the related areas of economic and health care policy—they haven’t made a very compelling case for it, beyond patchwork measures to keep the government functioning and the financial community quiet.

So to a very real extent, if you believe (as do most observers in both parties after November 6) that the days of Barack Obama chasing Republicans around Washington begging for compromises are over, then what he can accomplish (probably even in areas like climate change where regulatory options are available, given the ability of congressional Republicans to gum up the works with assistance from Democrats representing fossil-fuel dependent states or districts) may largely be up to the opposition, and its willingness or unwillingness to chart a new course.

I’ve made my own view pretty clear that I think today’s GOP, in the grip of a conservative movement that isn’t likely to surrender its conquest of a major party after decades of struggle, is at least another electoral beating or two away from a serious rethinking of its ideology. Even that may be optimistic since, after all, the chief characteristic of U.S. conservatism today is a belief in eternal, absolute principles of governing that by definition cannot be modified without shame. And there’s always a good chance that a combination of some improved leadership, a nip and tuck in this or that policy, and a predictable improvement in GOP fortunes in 2014 when the midterm electorate gets to work its old white magic, will given the Right a renewed sense that the era of Barry Goldwater’s vindication is just around the corner.

But the bottom line is that Barack Obama has limited control over his own ultimate legacy. Perhaps he’ll just be Moses, pointing the way to a new liberal era but not governing in it like Joshua. If that is his fate, then what he seems to be doing right now—drawing maximum public attention to the distinctions between the two parties instead of standing aside haughtily from both—can at least contribute to the electoral beatings the Right needs to experience to see its way clear to the kind of “move to the center” defeated parties and ideological movements usually adopt a lot more rapidly.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • c u n d gulag on January 23, 2013 4:55 PM:

    Moses, my @$$!

    If Conservatives could have their way, President Obama will be headless John the Baptist - with no Liberal Jesus coming down the pike.
    They'll make sure of that by strangling him/her, in the crib, if they can.

    Like MLK, I hope, but doubt, that he'll live to see "The Promised Land" - if, there ever even is one.

    Frankly, I'm surprised he's been allowed to live this long!
    And if he stays too vocal about what he talked about in his 2nd Inaugural, I wouldn't place any money in Vegas on his surviving another 4 years.

    But, then, I'm a pessimist...

    Hopefully, you can convince me that I'm wrong.

  • Mrs. J on January 23, 2013 5:15 PM:

    Man, the sense of relief that it wasn't Myth Romney venturing forth with as the newly inaugurated president with sidekick Ryan.

    I don't have the keep-me-awake fears that a Republican president will ruin my life. That's why I changed from Hue and Cry to Mrs. J.

    The gun nuts worry me too, Gulag

  • Napoleon on January 23, 2013 5:20 PM:

    They will not need to rethink since they are in the process of rigging elections so that the election that just past is the last actual election in my life time (I am 51) where the control over the house and presidency is in doubt.

  • jjm on January 23, 2013 5:41 PM:

    The GOP, and the political philosophers they had in their corner, seemed really to believe that the triumph of Reaganism (or whatever you want to call the redistribution of the wealth upward) was complete, absolute, and forever. Remember the mantra of 'the end of history' in which socialism was consigned to the dustbin of history?

    But a funny thing happened. They not only grew too smug, they grew much too greedy. And the left-behinds noticed, not because they were impoverished and hurting so much as because they were so very numerous they could not be ignored --by each other. The 1% was delighted to remain blithely ignorant of the 99%.

    And the 99% just came and bit them on the you-know-where.

  • Mrs. J on January 23, 2013 5:41 PM:

    I have a feeling that eventually there will be a workable standard for what constitutes an egregious gerrymander by these opportunistic deceitful republicans

  • skeptonomist on January 23, 2013 6:13 PM:

    Obama knew what he had to do to set up his legacy, which was to pass a universal health care bill. He did that, probably on skimping other things such as attention to economic matters. Liberals have gotten overexcited about a fairly marginal election victory and a somewhat aggressive inauguration speech, but Ed has it right, the basic politics are just not there for any new major accomplishments.

  • Mrs. J on January 23, 2013 6:18 PM:

    Read Rep. Robert Wexler's book "Fire-Breathing Liberal: How I learned to survice (and thrive) in the contact sport of Congress. (2008)
    It will make you feel better

  • Mrs. J on January 23, 2013 6:21 PM:

    "survive* not survice

  • Mrs. J on January 23, 2013 6:24 PM:

    "survive* not survice

  • Rick B on January 23, 2013 6:54 PM:

    @c u n d, I think I have more faith in the Secret Service than you do. And in four years the total number of conservative white elderly males that makes up the power center of the conservative is going to be sharply depleted by age, death and retirement.

    The rural southern states and some like Oklahoma, Missouri, etc will, however, remain the festering center of conservative corruption that continually makes America sick.

  • exlibra on January 23, 2013 11:03 PM:

    In 1957, a Polish philosopher named Leszek Kolakowski wrote a somewhat whimsical book, called "Heavenly Key". The book consisted of Bible-based stories, each with a "moral" at he end. The book was on the black list for most of my childhood and teens but, for a short span, when I was 16, it was available in bookstores, albeit in the children's section (like Orwell's Animal Farm. Fables and fairy tales, you know). I got my copy then, and never parted from it.

    The "morals" were -- if possible -- even funnier than the stories themselves. The "moral" of the Joshua story was this: "Let's blow (the trumpets) and blow and, perhaps, a miracle will happen". Seems very appropriate today, somehow :)

    The book, BTW, has been translated into English (as "Key to Heaven") and published in US, probably on the principle that no good dissident of the commie system should miss his reward in a free world. Unfortunately, Kolakowski's attitude towards religion was far to irreverent to stomach by the American public; the reviews were *vile* :)